The Jane Friedman-Open Road Media Model: Thinking Creatively About Backlists and Acquisitions for Your Publisher

Original article: Publisher’s Weekly‘s Open Road Launches Series for Controversial Works

Open Road Media is an ambitious new publisher that focuses on acquiring eBooks from authors with large, underappreciated lists, defunct publishers, and other creative avenues to create an impressive digital platform of primarily backlisted titles. The company’s CEO, Jane Friedman, once rewrote the book on marketing by inventing the author tour, and now relies on professionally designed book trailers, social media, syndication, and other unconventional methods to sell books that other publishers, major and minor, have passed up.

While Friedman, who recently visited Emerson College to speak about her publishing career, is currently intent upon getting the first “e-riginal” eBook in the New York Times Book Review, she has already succeeded in a contemporary publishing model that shows the potency of eBooks as a primary channel of sales with the right marketing strategy. Equally important, she has relied upon the old publishing model of creating themed lists of books that will attract audiences.

Most recently, as described in the article above, Open Road launched Forbidden Bookshelf, which takes older books that exposed a dark, uncomfortable truth but never achieved enough exposure to sell or reach a wide audience. Of the five initial books on the list, many were published in the 80s and 90s, and all of them to my knowledge by different publishers. It’s hard to find information on their past publishing history, because they were all essentially defunct until Open Road rediscovered their potential and purchased them.

Relying on backlists is nothing new to major publishers, who can take risks on exorbitant author advances because of the safety nets provided by contemporary bestsellers like Harry Potter or Twilight, or by the classics everyone reads in school, or is supposed to, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. There is an uncreative complacency inherent in this model, where big publishers rely on and market guaranteed moneymakers and let other old titles stagnate. Friedman’s publishing house taps into the very resource that big publishers have left dormant, and succeeds as a result.

If you get an acquisitions or marketing job with a major publisher, don’t spend all of your time on new titles if you can. Some new editors have made a name for themselves finding out-of-print, obscure, or public domain titles, repackaging and rebranding them without an expensive author advance, and selling them to great success. Another example: at the risk of sounding both morbid and callous, there’s a major market for the unfinished or unpublishable stories of deceased authors, from Nabokov’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura to Octavia Butler’s undiscovered short stories (Open Road recently acquired Butler’s stories).

But even then, these strategies perpetuate the idea that publishers need to find the next bestseller or gem in the rough, rather than create a compelling list of several titles from what you have. In the digital age, all a book may need to suddenly start selling is a revamped cover that looks fresh on a digital platform.

But how easy could it really be to just make a compelling list from old titles? I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader! I think that lists can be compelling on their own, like Open Road’s inspired flirting with controversy, or they can stem from current events or blatant plagiarism. Here’s some examples:

Piggybacking on major classics: If you’re sitting with books like Huck Finn and Grapes of Wrath on your list, you can cash in on them individually or look for other road trip or transformative journey novels to group with them. Find modern narratives of race to accompany sales of Invisible Man and Native Son. Sell despicable protagonists with Lolita. Think Amazon’s effective recommendation system, only tailored to your publishing house’s list rather than to KDP titles and your competitors.

Feminism in any genre: In solidarity with #yesallwomen, whip out old titles with strong female protagonists, or speculative societies dominated by women. You can look at the success of recent Kickstarter campaigns like Women Destroy Science Fiction and Athena’s Daughters to see how readers are craving stories with empowered women at the forefront, so dredge through the majority of your male-dominated titles for older works that will still inspire interest today and repackage them for a contemporary audience.

Hollywood and hipsters: when Star Wars episode VII comes out in a year or two, pull out the space operas from your list that inspired Lucas or expanded upon his model. For this week’s dragon-themed movie and show finale, pull out your own dragon-themed books and claim they put Drogon and Toothless to shame. Basically, show awareness of pop culture and current events happening around you in order to attract young reading audiences, while also asserting bluntly how much books are than other forms of media. Book lovers eat that kind of thing up (or at least I would).

I believe that publishers should be more dynamic about eBook marketing when it comes to taking advantage of their massive backlist, and that if publishers ever become serious about taking book distribution out of Amazon’s hands and back into their own, then they have a lot to learn from Open Road about improving their digital marketing platform. For better or worse, we’re joining publishing in a dynamic period of growth and change, and predicting how publishers should change themselves to survive and thrive will hopefully prepare us for what’s ahead.

Thanks for reading!

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